Anton Khudobin is not a household name, even among hockey circles. With only 21 NHL games to his name before this season, all of them over a span of four years, it should come as no surprise that he has had trouble making headlines. What little coverage he received revolved more around his ability as a backup and how much the Boston Bruins, his former team, played a part in his numbers. However, Anton Khudobin has turned some heads this season, despite playing in the quiet hockey market of Carolina, and is quickly silencing any questions and critiques about his play.
Looking back at his career, the young goaltender has always had trouble staying in one place for very long. Playing in his home country of Kazakhstan as a 10-year old defenseman, he wound up on the wrong end of the scoresheet more often than not. The young player had a habit of assuming the butterfly stance to block shots, allowing opposing players to simply use him as a tool to score.
“When I was playing in games, every time I was sitting to stop the puck,” said Khudobin “Off of me there was a deflection. They scored in my net and I was the defenseman.”
His father, the coach of his youth team, saw the habit that the young player had picked up and asked him if he would feel more comfortable playing goalie. His son thought it over and agreed that would be the best course of action, beginning a very long and successful career as a goaltender. Though this career was not without some bumps along the way.
Khudobin was drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the seventh round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, but did not receive a professional contract with the club until three years later. He was bounced around the Wild’s minor league affiliates for the following couple of years until a string of injuries to Minnesota’s goaltenders gave him his first NHL action. With Nicklas Backstrom falling ill and Josh Harding aggravating a hip injury while attempting to make a save, the young goaltender entered a 2-2 game midway through the third period.
“Everybody came to me and just said, ‘Relax. Play your game,”‘ said Khudobin “I just said to myself, ‘I have to stop the first shot, and it’ll be OK after that.”
He stopped the first shot and eight more after that, allowing the Wild to take the lead and eventually the win. He won the next game for the Wild as well, stopping 38 shots in a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, including 14 shots in the first period. Minnesota’s coach Todd Richards credited the goaltender after the game, saying that he “jumped right in” when the team did not allow him the luxury of easing into the game.
He would not play another game for the Wild that season, but when Josh Harding suffered a knee injury during the preseason of the following year, it looked like the young goaltender would get his chance to become a full-time NHL backup. Instead, the Wild opted to sign free agent Jose Theodore as a backup, forcing Khudobin into the third string spot again. However, he would earn his first NHL shutout that season, a 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, after being called up only days before.
A new opportunity for the goaltender arose when he was traded from the Wild to the Boston Bruins in the 2010-2011 season. Though he was still considered a third string goaltender for the Bruins, as they had elite goaltender Tim Thomas and solid backup Tuuka Rask, his odds of success were much higher in the Boston organization than they were in Minnesota. The Bruins ran a very solid defensive system, preventing their goaltender from seeing many shots against. In his third start for the Bruins, he earned a 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, but credited the win to the team in front of him.
“It was great. I got a little rest in the first and second period. I didn’t do much.” Khudobin said. “The guys played awesome in front of me.”
Games like the Washington one brought questions to the surface of how much credit could actually be given to Boston goaltenders for the team’s success. The critics not-so-silently announced that any average goaltender could be put behind the Boston team and put up similar numbers. Though the accusations were aimed toward Thomas and Rask, Khudobin’s success was also brought under scrutiny and was actually used as evidence to disparage the success of Thomas and Rask.
Though he found success in Boston, the young goaltender knew that he wanted to become a starter in the league. When he hit free agency in the 2013 offseason, he was presented that opportunity. The Carolina Hurricanes had been looking for a solid NHL backup for years, but recent injuries to long-time starter Cam Ward made it an even more pressing matter. Khudobin signed a one-year, 800k contract to backup Ward and possibly put pressure on the starter to perform to expectations. Instead, another injury to Ward early in the year thrust the young goaltender into the starter role. It is a role that he is fighting tooth and nail to remain in.
“Of course, why not?” he said. “At some point it’s supposed to turn to my way, right? I’ve been battling for many years to get (to) this level. I knew I can play at this level.”
In Khudobin’s 33 starts this season, he has allowed more than three goals in only one of them. On most nights, he allows two or less. In addition, Carolina’s defense is nowhere near comparable to Boston’s, silencing a lot of the criticism that surrounded the young goaltender during his time with the Bruins. His play this season may fly under the radar when compared to other young goaltenders, like Rask or Carey Price, but he is drawing some attention from one very important coach.
The Hurricanes are likely not going to make the playoffs this season, despite Khudobin’s performance in net, but this will allow the young goaltender to participate in the World Championships. Team Russia’s head coach Oleg Znarok has said he has a list of eight goaltenders that could fill the net for his team in the World Championships, but mentioned the Hurricanes’ goaltender specifically as someone who is “displaying some very interesting hockey in Carolina at the moment.”
At the moment, Anton Khudobin is the best kept secret in hockey, putting up solid numbers in Carolina that would receive rave reviews in a bigger hockey market. His play this year earned him a multi-year contract extension in Carolina, allowing Hurricanes fans to enjoy night after night of the goaltender quietly doing his job. However, that may not last long. If he does start in net for Team Russia, it will be the first time he has taken the spotlight on a major stage. If Anton Khudobin performs as well as expected in the World Championships, he will not only make his presence known in the hockey world, but will finally silence the critics that have surrounded him throughout his career.
This article is one in a daily series providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner